On Distinctions Between Tone Policing and “Political Correctness”

In ruminating over my post from the other week about the absurdity of objecting to “political correctness,” I spent a little bit of time also considering the habit of tone policing, which shares some similarities with “political correctness” (again, this is a highly loaded term that can’t be used in a truly neutral sense, but for my purposes, read any instance of that term here as referring to the insistence on using inclusive language that isn’t injurious to traditionally oppressed groups).  Both forms of protest involve critiquing a speaker for using what’s perceived as damaging or careless language in the course of trying to make a point.  It follows, based on that simple comparison, that if demanding “political correctness” is okay, then tone policing should be similarly allowed in discourse.

This is not the case.

I feel like what I’m about to say is kind of condescending because it’s a very elementary aspect of intersectional feminist thought, and it’s a rule I’ve been trying to observe in my own critiques and conversations for a couple years now, but I’m going to say it anyhow: the identity of the speaker must always be considered when critiquing what they have said.  This point matters because, it often follows that in cases of “political correctness” and tone policing, calls for the former usually come from people who belong to those injured groups and instances of the latter usually come from people in positions of privilege relative to the people they are critiquing.

To put it more simply, people who demand “political correctness” are usually the ones getting their tone policed by the people who think “political correctness” is stupid.  This feedback loop is yet another example of privilege in action, where people who aren’t injured by a particular discourse seek to delegitimize the voices of those who are by saying they aren’t following the established rules of civil discourse.  Suddenly the issue becomes about how messages are delivered rather than what their content is, and this change of focus is only applied to people on the losing side of the power differential.

“But political correctness is also a distraction from the content of a person’s message!” cry the people who don’t think the power differential matters.  To that, I want to point out that the language we use shapes our ideas, and the shape of ideas presented through non-“politically correct” language resembles an attitude of dismissal, erasure, and disdain for people who fall outside the speaker’s curated experience.  This shape is an indicator of the speaker’s message, and that message will likely be harmful enough without the added sting of insensitive language.  Conversely, the shape of ideas presented in a harsh tone is often angry, fed up, and frustrated, which also indicates the speaker’s message, which likely involves demanding something they feel is deserved but unfairly denied.  This kind of message typically communicates a feeling of powerlessness that understandably finds expression in a stronger tone.  From there you have to consider if the speaker’s point is a fair one (which again involves examining relative levels of power surrounding the speakers in the conversation).  If it is, then listen to what the speaker has to say and take into account why the message wasn’t delivered in pristine civil form.  If it isn’t, then there are deeper points for critique than the way things were said.

Either way, tone policing is fundamentally counterproductive to the discourse in ways that “political correctness” is not.


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